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A most intelligent and interesting introduction to Confucian Thought and Practice
on 7 May 2009
Confucius from the Heart: Ancient Wisdom for Today's World, Yu Dan
This short volume is a delightful book to read. It has been excellently designed, illustrated and printed, and is therefore a pleasure to hold to and read. The work expounds a simple, and therefore immediately comprehensible, exposition of the principles, which define Confucian philosophy and practice. In this system of thought, which has been described as ethico-religious, action essentially takes precedence over words: `Confucius's strength is forever the strength of action, and not the strength of words.'
Following a short introduction the author traces and explains the development of Confucian thought and practice through six chapters with the following headings, The Way of Heaven and Earth, the Way of Heart and Soul, The Way of the World, The Way of Friendship, The Way of Ambition and The Way of Being. The school of philosophy, which this book so eloquently expounds, initially seems to emphasise the contemplative life, over the active life, although it is certainly the latter which Confucius actually advocates. The Confucian mode of thought essentially advocates a way of life - an active life primarily intended for the ancient world - which places cardinal importance on the continuous expression of the virtues: humaneness or benevolence, loyalty, filial piety, good faith or trustworthiness, rightness, reciprocity, deference, courage...
The book is primarily intended for the untutored reader: the reader who is unfamiliar with philosophical concepts. Those who fall into this category will undoubtedly derive significant benefit from careful study of its content. The text contains numerous anecdotes, which serve to illuminate the essential content of Confucian thought, which has a distinctive Aristotelian flavour, in its expression of the virtues and its search for excellence.
My favourite anecdote concerns a group of porcupines who live in a cave and during winter huddle together in order to keep warm. If they become too close, then they prick each other, and if they remain too far apart, then they fail to keep warm. This fable advises us that we should maintain an optimum space between our ourselves and our familiars, to ensure that we do not become excessively intimate with them or limit their privacy. Because undue intimacy, even between our immediate familiars, can lead to friction, and can therefore be disrespectful of their privacy and integrity. Each individual requires a private 'space' which, if infringed, causes tension and disharmony, and is therefore inimical to the maintenance of sound relationships with others. The lessons of this book need to be studied and understood, within the modern world, and it is therefore worthy of careful consideration on that score alone.
The strength and clarity of this book is to be found in the manner in which it interprets the ancient wisdom of the Sage, and then relates that interpretation to modern existence. The book was primarily intended for Chinese readers, but has since been translated into elegant English. Some of the ideas expressed in this book may not immediately appeal to modern Western sensibilities and sentiments. Its content, which is essentially idealistic in character, identifies obvious tensions between the ancient, Confucian ethos and the realism, which motivates the modern Western way of life and thought: a way of life and thought which places emphasis on pluralism, secularism and individualism. However, this volume and the philosophy which it expounds has much to tell us that is of contemporary relevance and will appeal to the reader who has, perhaps, become disenchanted with our way of life, and who is unfamiliar with Eastern philosophical thought in general, and Confucian philosophy in particular. The text is exceptionally clear and elegantly expresses Confucian philosophy and practice for the benefit of those who are new to the subject. It constitutes a simple introduction and guide to the Analects for the reader who has not encountered the subject before. I can certainly recommend this book as an elementary, but comprehensive, guide to the philosophical thought of Confucius and the modes of action that derive from it. Stuart Hopkins